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Plan adds health care professionals

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SANTA FE – Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration, seeking to bolster the front lines of New Mexico’s health care workforce, plans to push legislation that would create a statewide certification program for community health workers.

If approved by the Legislature, the voluntary program would allow community health workers, a broad group that includes what are known in Spanish as promotoras, to be eligible for Medicaid reimbursement for the first time.

With New Mexico readying to expand its Medicaid rolls to an estimated 170,000 people in the coming years, it would also help the state ease the burden on already overtaxed doctors and nurses, according to Martinez.

“We’re facing unprecedented changes in health care, but I’m confident that we can build an economy that is capable of leading through those changes,” the Republican governor said. “To do so, we need to embrace an approach that bolsters the ranks of all kinds of primary care providers and makes New Mexico attractive for health care workers – particularly in rural areas.”

The model being proposed would consist of various training sessions and a final exam. Although details are still being worked out, the training would probably be offered statewide, possibly through community colleges, as well as online, Department of Health Secretary Retta Ward said.

Those who completed the program would be eligible to be reimbursed by Medicaid for their work, under a new rule from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services that will take effect in January.

“It’s an opportunity to grow this profession and have these community health care workers move into other health professions as well,” Ward said.

Meanwhile, Human Services Deputy Secretary Brent Earnest said the initiative would make it more “viable” for clinics or hospitals to employ community health workers.

Many community health workers – there are an estimated 800 such workers in New Mexico – visit patients in their homes or in community centers, though they also work with doctors in clinical settings. Although they do not provide direct medical services, they conduct health screenings, educate patients and help with translation.

Aggie Olsen, a community health worker in Ojo Caliente who focuses on diabetes problems, said she builds relationships with patients that many doctors do not have.

“They’ll tell me things they’re afraid to tell a provider,” Olsen told the Journal .

Presbyterian Healthcare Services CEO Jim Hinton said he sees community health workers playing an increasingly large role as the state expands its Medicaid rolls and revamps its Medicaid program.

“If there’s a way we can tap into people through these health workers and improve (health-related) behaviors, then we should be doing it,” Hinton said.

Currently, 32 of the state’s 33 counties are federally designated as having a shortage of health care professionals.

The community health workers proposal will be introduced as a bill during the coming 30-day legislative session, according to the Governor’s Office. Creation of the certification program would also require a $500,000 appropriation, which will be part of the Department of Health’s annual budget request.

The initiative is one of several the Martinez administration is expected to propose during the 2014 legislative session to address the health care workforce issue.

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